On the Move: An Icon of Modernist Architecture Is Transported to a New Home in Palm Springs

Albert Frey’s modernist model home, Aluminaire House, moves to Palm Springs from New York.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

This week, one of the most influential pieces of early modernist architecture began a cross-country journey from New York to its new home in Southern California.

Aluminaire House, the historic, prefab metal home by famed Swiss architect Albert Frey, has been removed from storage on Long Island and is on its way to its permanent new home, just in time for Palm Springs Modernism Week.

In the modernist enclave of Palm Springs, Frey is considered a virtual patron saint of architecture. He practiced and lived in the desert city from 1939 until his death in 1998, and many of his iconic buildings are preserved there today, including Raymond Loewy House, Palm Springs City Hall, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Gas Station and Frey House II.

The addition of the Aluminaire House is a major boon for the design-minded vacation destination. Mark Davis, treasurer of Modernism Week and committee member of the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation, said the entire city — from the mayor to the Modern Art Museum — is in full support of the decision to house Aluminaire to round out their Frey collection. “We’ve been talking about getting the house here for the last three Modernism Weeks,” Davis said. “It was almost a unanimous vote. From the very start, the revolutionary design caught people’s attention, just as it did in the 1930s when it came out looking like something from outer space.”

Built in 1931, the small-scale structure came to life under the vision of a young Frey — just trained by Le Corbusier in Paris — and A. Lawrence Kocher, then managing editor of Architectural Record. The project was commissioned as part of a buildings products display at the Architectural League of New York exhibition, put on in conjunction with Allied Arts and Industries. The pair proposed a model dwelling made of standard, “off the shelf” materials — accessible, cheap and a prototype for 21st-century housing.

Image via Aluminaire.org

To complement Aluminaire’s world debut, Kocher and Frey published an article in Record about their study to design for small lots in New York City subdivisions. Arguing specifically that current construction in Queens was flimsy, monotonous and contributed nothing to community life, their solution was a plan with the flexibility and appeal of the Aluminaire House.

At 1,200 square feet, the steel and aluminum, three-story structure stands partially on top of six columns. The exterior walls are covered in narrow-ribbed aluminum panels, and large glass windows bring light into the house. A third-floor covered terrace connects visitors with the outdoors. Kocher and Frey designed the house and its components to be quickly assembled as a whole. The project was put together in just 10 days at the Grand Central Palace next to Grand Central Station and opened for one week, during which over 100,000 people toured modern living space.

Image via the New York Institute of Technology

Wildly popular, Aluminaire House was covered extensively in the press and also sparked conversation on its role in the going debates surrounding affordable housing in the United States. In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art featured the house in its first-ever architectural showcase, “Modern Architecture: An International Exhibition,” organized by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson.

Following the exhibition, architect Wallace K. Harrison bought the house and moved it to his property on Huntington, Long Island. When his estate was sold and the owner decided to demolish the building, a group of architects and preservationists banded together to save the long-neglected house. Among the group were New York Institute of Technology professors Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting. Placed under their care with a grant from the New York State Department of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, Aluminaire House became the focal point of a structures course at the Central Islip campus of the NYIT. Students learned to repair, dismantle and assemble the house while documenting every detail.

Image via the New York Institute of Technology

“Aluminaire House was revolutionary in its ability to be taken down so easily with screwdrivers,” said Schwarting. “We’d take apart the house in a few days, make drawings of each layer of material and how it was arranged and located in the building.”

When the campus closed in 2012, the Aluminaire House Foundation was formed to preserve the house. The group raised money to have the house moved, reassembled and open to the public. After a struggle to keep it in New York and permanently locate it in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, the City of Palm Springs reached out with an alternative opportunity.

The structure was disassembled for the big move and is being transported in a 45-foot-long trailer wrapped in graphics of the home. The truck will be on view during Palm Springs Modernism Week from Feb. 16 – 26 and be the subject of a lecture and fundraiser.

Image via Aluminaire.org

After the festivities, Aluminaire House will be on permanent display and open to the public once a new park is completed this year downtown across from the Palm Springs Art Museum. Though this sensational structure is moving 2,700 miles away from its longtime home in New York, it will certainly be well taken care of and appreciated by the people of Palm Springs.

“One thing we’re intent on is that people understand its impact on the history of modern housing,” said Campani. “Palm Springs is a perfect fit, and we’re very happy about its reconnection to Frey’s other work.” Aluminaire House was recently included in the Record list of the most important buildings of the past 125 years.

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